The tourism bureau of Manatee County, population just over 400,000, advertises the expected trappings of any placid gulfside community in southwest Florida — a historic fishing village, an award-winning local library system, outlet malls. Eighty-six percent white and a noted second-home locale for retirees fleeing the Northeast in winter, Manatee has voted for every Republican presidential nominee since 1948 — the sort of homogeneity that typically produces staid politics. In the summer of 2020, as the county’s residents turned their attention to the race for District 7’s seat on the board of county commissioners, some of the hot-button issues were a new storm-water fee and the wisdom of using public funds to extend 44th Avenue East.
The idea that conventional Republicans like Pence and Haley can repackage themselves through Trump loyalty fails to reckon with the desire of many Trump voters to genuinely overturn the party’s status quo. Oren Cass, the domestic policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, argues that in 2016, Trump in some ways ran the most substantively policy-focused campaign of the Republican field, on trade policy, on immigration and “ultimately on how the market economy is serving people.” “Was he powerfully articulating that? No. But there was an opening for someone to do just that.”
Earlier this year, Cass founded a think tank called American Compass to offer a policy vision — reforming organized labor and “reshoring” supply chains, remedying failures in financial markets — to address the dissatisfaction with conservative economic orthodoxy that he believes Trump’s 2016 campaign indicated. In August, he hosted American Compass’s first live conversation, a remote interview with the junior senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, billed as a discussion about the “empty platitudes and hypocrisy of ‘woke capital.’” The youngest current member of the Senate, Hawley, at age 40, has become a favorite among those in the conservative think-tank class who believe the lessons of Trump’s resonance are primarily ideological. “The old political platforms have grown stale,” Hawley told the audience at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference — an effort by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a new think tank, to map the contours of what might be called a post-Trump nationalism — in July 2019. He rebuked the American right for its celebration of “hyper-globalization,” its dogmatic affection for the free market.
The difficulty with engineering a new paradigm that builds on Trump’s 2016 win is that the president himself is not especially committed to it, and the numbers of those in his administration who are have dwindled. Trump’s presidency has not itself departed much from the substance of the old platforms — and not only because his party has not bothered to formally update them. For all of Bannon’s bold postelection talk, Trump’s White House ultimately came to resemble something much more traditionally Republican, pursuing a mostly conventional conservative agenda beneath its roiling surface noise of organizational chaos, casual racism and weird tweets about the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”
“I think it is obviously the case that certain facets of the administration’s policymaking became kind of very traditionally supply-side,” Cass told me. He said he has had “very constructive conversations” with staff members at the agency level who are receptive to both the conceptual arguments and policy ideas of American Compass. “But actually moving policy forward in an administration depends on the focus of the principal. And obviously there’s — I don’t think there’s sufficient focus from the top on actually developing and advancing a coherent agenda.” He acknowledged that Trump has in this way hurt the project he is credited with helping give life to. “It has put efforts to build a coherent and constructive foundation in the context of an administration that people are looking to to do that, but isn’t.”